A heightened US role in Syria is now just one of the many explosive dangers in the region, writes JOHN ELLISON
WHO CAN say that the Middle East today is not a tangled and terrifying web? Someone trying to make sense of it could start with Syria.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the civil war since 2011, following popular protests against the historically brutal and undemocratic but secular regime that spring.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has been in place since 2000, following that of his father, Hafez al-Assad which began with a coup in 1970.
Democratic and human rights credentials should not be looked for either in the father or the son’s government.
But nor can they be found in enemies of the regime, such as the governments of Saudi Arabia (originally West-created) and Turkey, while countries with better claims to internal democracy, such as Israel, have long practised unwarrantable interference in other countries.
And behind Saudi Arabia and Israel stands the United States, the world’s number one imperialist aggressor and the big spider in the web, plus Theresa May’s Britain: its little helper.
Today the Assad regime and its allies are in a far stronger position against Sunni jihadi opposition forces than two years ago, and it may be this which has made Donald Trump’s US administration more confident in seeking to punish it militarily.
In early April this year 59 Tomahawk missiles destroyed a Syrian army position on the basis that the Syrian army had used a sarin deadly nerve agent against civilians, though the evidence — and a motive — produced for this charge was weak.
Moreover, the US justification for the attack has not survived the clinical scrutiny of veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published lately in Germany’s Die Welt.
Justification for unilateral big spider action in international law was typically absent. The US is unmistakably conditioning public opinion for further, and perhaps major, war on the Assad regime.
In November 2015 journalist and Middle East expert Patrick Cockburn (whose father Claude was once a journalist on this paper) wrote this in the London Review of Books (LBR): “Shia states across the Middle East, notably Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, have never had much doubt that they are in a fight to the finish with the Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia, and their local allies in Syria and Iraq.” Syria shares a five hundred mile border with Turkey, whose successive governments have treated its own minority Kurdish population, as well as Kurds in Syria and elsewhere, as enemies. This fact has influenced the Erdogan government’s attitude to movements such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis). Isis, wrote Cockburn in his 2015 book The Rise of Islamic State, “is the child of war” combining a “toxic but potent mix of extreme religious beliefs and military skill.” Where did that mix come from? As Cockburn points out, it “is the outcome of the war in Iraq since the US invasion of 2003 and the war in Syria since 2011.” The US, Britain and other European allies — together with Middle Eastern allies — had created the conditions for the rise of Isis. He added that it was the war in Syria that ignited fresh war in Iraq.
Cockburn addressed the Erdogan government’s early response to the Syrian events, stating: “[It] supported the militarisation of the crisis, backed the jihadis, and assumed that Assad would soon be defeated.
“This did not happen, and what had been a popular uprising became dominated by sectarian warlords who flourished in conditions created by Turkey.”
Considering the possibility that Turkey might join the war against Assad directly, Cockburn pointed out that if this happened, Iranian leaders might well covertly support an armed Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.
But what can be said of the Sunni states in relation to Isis? Cockburn’s balanced assessment in his book is chilling: “The Sunni Arab monarchies may not like Isis, which threatens the political status quo, but as one Iraqi observer put it, ‘They like the fact that Isis creates more problems for the Shia than it does for them’.”
In his book Syria Burning, journalist Charles Glass chronicles the events in Syria since the brutal putting down of the “Arab spring” protest of 2011.
He notes that in January 2012 the al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra Front became a rebel military player in Syria, and that in 2013 Isis became visible too as part of opposition forces. In this muddied situation the House of Commons voted, to its credit, against the proposed bombing of the Assad regime, and the US itself backed off from an attack. For the moment.
In 2014, in response to huge military gains made by Isis in Iraq and Syria, the US became more active without agreement from the Assad regime in bombing Isis targets.
In autumn 2015 the Russian government, long an ally of Syria, and with its government’s agreement, commenced bombing them too. In his 2015 LRB article Cockburn wrote that Russian air strikes — while provoking much Cold War rhetoric in the West — were raising the morale of the Syrian army, which had looked fought out and on the retreat.
He explained too that any US support for the Shia forces of Syria, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah would alienate the Sunni states, which are its key friends in the region. Thus, wrote Cockburn, the US could only use its air force in support of the Kurds in Syria.
But the US military, given a free hand by Trump, is now behaving more dangerously than ever in a world in which the Saudi regime and the Gulf states are themselves aggressively pumped up. Saudi Arabian-led forces have for two years past, with the help of large deliveries of Western arms, attempted to end the rule of the admittedly self-appointed Houthi Yemeni government, considering it to be an agent of Iran.
And now the little independent Sunni Gulf state of Qatar is on the verge, it seems, of being gobbled up by the Saudis and their allies.
Last month, on Russia Today’s Sputnik, George Galloway interviewed veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan, who told Galloway that most Arab states regarded Iran as “the arch-enemy” and therefore Israel as their friend. The Saudi monarchy, with its new youthful heir to the throne and its oil riches, wished, he said, to dominate the whole Middle East.
Qatar, on the other hand, with a population lower than two million, wishes to maintain an independent foreign policy, with a relationship with Iran and Palestine.
Qatar might seen at risk of invasion were it not for the presence of 10,000 US troops at Washington’s airbase in the emirate and the more recent arrival of Turkish soldiers.
As for Isis, Atwan believes that it will lose the war in Iraq and Syria, but could become more dangerous underground, having branches in at least 19 countries including Pakistan. Terrorism, internationally, could get much worse.
Meanwhile the aspiration of the people of Palestine for an independent state is put deep in the shadows, as the big spider — the military-industrial complex of the US and its President Donald “Hubris” Trump — through its Middle Eastern allies and its own direct intervention threatens all of our futures.
More strikes against the Assad government could also mean strikes against Russian forces, which could retaliate, with unpredictable consequences.
Noam Chomsky’s classic, Understanding Power, published back in 2002, spoke of the “Samson Complex” — derived from the biblical, blinded Samson, who killed his Philistine enemies by pulling down the temple walls around him.
Leading voices in Israel, said Chomsky, openly advocated the idea that if pushed too hard, Israel “would do something wild, we’ll go crazy — and you’ll all suffer.”
Since the year 2002, the disease of crazily aggressive Western behaviour — spread under former US presidents George Bush and Barack Obama, and now under Trump — has become an epidemic, while British defence minister Michael Fallon has declared himself to be as happy a nodding dog to US aggression as was Tony Blair. The warmongers must be defeated.